[Below is a guest article written by Kris Komarnitsky, author of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?. I have reviewed Kris’ book previously on this blog (see here), and so I am glad that he asked me to also post his article here.]
Thanks for the intro Matt. Although the bereavement vision hypothesis is widely regarded as a plausible naturalistic explanation for the rise of the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead, I have never quite found this hypothesis completely convincing. My article below draws on social psychology to propose what I believe is a better, or at least significantly complementary, explanation for the rise of the resurrection belief, followed by a critique of the bereavement vision hypothesis. To be up front, I attempted to publish this article in a peer review journal, but the reviewer found it too speculative and the use of biblical texts and ancient Jewish literature too secondary for their purview. I respect the judgment of this journal even though I found their criteria overly restrictive, and I was encouraged by the lack of technical objections. The origin of the resurrection belief is a captivating historical puzzle and the lack of a satisfying answer motivated my inquiry into this topic. Ironically, the lack of a satisfying answer for the rise of the resurrection belief subjected me to the same basic cognitive process that I will suggest led to the resurrection belief. This cognitive process affects all of us, more than I think we are usually aware of. I hope readers find my article useful. – Kris Komarnitsky (KomarKris@gmail.com)
The article below is also available as a pdf.
The conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead is found in the earliest evidence of Christian origins and appears to have come about almost immediately after Jesus’ death. How does one account for the rise of this extraordinary belief if the later Gospel accounts of a discovered empty tomb and corporeal post-mortem appearances of Jesus are legends, as many scholars believe is the case?
One popular answer to this question is that the resurrection belief came about as an inference from an unconsciously generated and cognitive dissonance reducing bereavement vision of Jesus, described by one proponent of the vision hypothesis as “an auditory and visual experience of Jesus alive and in heavenly glory.” The vision hypothesis is supported by the fact that the Gospels often connect seeing Jesus with causing belief in Jesus’ resurrection, so a historically causal connection between the two seems natural. However, the earliest statements of Jesus’ appearances (1 Cor. 15.5-7) actually do not state any causal connection between the appearances of Jesus and belief in Jesus’ resurrection; they only state that Jesus appeared. Additionally, the Gospel appearance traditions are trying to bolster belief in Jesus’ resurrection many years or decades after Jesus’ death, so they may simply be part of a legendary trajectory that is trying to ground the initial resurrection belief in hard evidence for apologetic purposes, just like the discovered empty tomb tradition does. If so, then it is possible that the resurrection belief came first, and then the visions of Jesus followed. Allowing for this possibility, this article attempts to improve on an already developed but I believe undervalued explanation for the rise of the resurrection belief that draws on the extraordinary human phenomenon of cognitive-dissonance-induced rationalization.